Today is your last chance to adjust your Google privacy settings ahead of a major change to the way Google collects and collates data about you, its users.
From March 1, the company will begin to aggregate all the information it acquires about its users who are logged in to Google services into a single, unified pool of data.
This collectable information is what Columbia Law School professor and privacy advocate Eben Moglan refers to as the "data dandruff of life". It comprises the obvious and the obscure. Details you expect to be logged as well as inferred data that is created as a result of joining the dots.
In the past, data collected in the course of a web search would be kept separate from, for instance, your YouTube viewing activity, your Gmail usage or your Map queries.
From Thursday, that will cease being the case.
And unless you specifically scrub your Google Web History, everything that has been collected about your past search activities and the sites you clicked through to, can be scooped up and combined with information gleaned from usage on other Google-owned sites.
The changes will allow Google to better target ads to users and in doing so, enable the company to extract a higher price from advertisers. This is not unusual; all web publishers are attempting to deliver more targeted advertising. But not all publishers can combine as much information as Google can.
In tandem with the impending changes, Google has taken the opportunity to unify some 60 separate privacy policies into one simpler document.
The company has also been up front about the coming changes and for the past few weeks has posted notices on its websites and emailed its users explaining the changes.
However, it's fair to assume that many users have been oblivious to the new policies either because they may be more relaxed about privacy on the internet or because they haven't drilled down into the detail.
Despite the advance warning, not everyone is comfortable about the impending changes. A letter sent to Google's CEO Larry Page by a group of US state attorneys-general earlier this month characterised the move as an invasion of consumer privacy and criticised the company for failing to provide a proper ability to opt out.
The US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation points out that disabling Web History in your Google account will not prevent Google from gathering and storing this information. But it does mean the information will be partially anonymised after 18 months and that Google will abstain from using it for certain purposes.
Many people are comfortable with a lowering of the privacy bar that has come about in recent years as a result of the advent social networking sites such as MySpace and then Facebook.
However, if you're not one of those, here's how you can quarantine your Google Search History from the new data aggregation process.
- Go to the Google History page and sign in.
- If your Web History has been activated, you should see a button which says: "Remove All Web History". Then click "Okay" to confirm.
- When this is done you will see a "Resume" button, which you can click if at any time in the future you change your mind.
If you want even more control, you can also try these additional tools:
- Google Dashboard: A place where you can control the data associated with your Google Account.
- Ads Preferences Manager: A place where you can manage Google's advertising cookie.
- Eject button: And if you're still not satisfied and want to opt out altogether, Google provides a one stop shop to opt out of everything and take your "data dandruff" with you.
- Sydney Morning Herald